Little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis)

Also known as: green bee-eater
French: Guêpier d'Orient
GenusMerops (1)
SizeBody length: 16 - 18 cm (2)
Tail length: up to 10 cm (2)
Wingspan: 8.9 - 9.7 cm (3)
Weight15 - 20 g (2) (3)

The little green bee-eater is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis) is an exquisite little bird with bright emerald green plumage (4). The little green bee-eater can be identified by a narrow black stripe on its throat, known as a ‘gorget’, as well as a black ‘mask’ that runs through its crimson eyes. Also distinctive are the two central, long, narrow, black tail streamers (3) (4) (5) (6).

The wings are largely green, sometimes tinted with gold or reddish-brown, and have a black trailing edge (3) (6). The crown may be green, or may be strongly tinged with reddish-brown (4), and the bill is long and black (3).

Eight subspecies of the little green bee-eater are recognised: Merops orientalis viridissimu, Merops orientalis cleopatra, Merops orientalis flavoviridis, Merops orientalis muscatensis, Merops orientalis cyanophrys, Merops orientalis beludschicus, Merops orientalis orientalis and Merops orientalis ferrugeiceps. The subspecies may differ slightly in appearance (2). For example, the throat and chin of the little green bee-eater is electric blue in the Arabian Peninsula, green in northern Africa and Southeast Asia, yellow in Sudan, and pale green-blue in India (6).

The juvenile little green bee-eater is paler than the adult, and lacks the distinctive tail streamers and gorget (5).

This elegant bird can be heard making a soft trill call, ‘trree-trree-trree-trree-trree’, or giving short, sharp alarm calls of ‘ti-ic’ or ‘ti-ti-ti’ (3).

The little green bee-eater has a vast range, stretching from Mauritania in West Africa, across sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent as far north as Nepal. Its range extends into Southeast Asia, from central China, south to Thailand and Vietnam (1) (2) (7).

The little green bee-eater predominantly inhabits arid woodlands with scattered trees and bare soil or sand. The little green bee-eater can also be found in thickets around crops, in plantations, on lakesides or in dry river beds, as well as in open ground such as overgrazed pastures, gardens and farmland (2) (8).

Thought to be a monogamous bird (3), the little green bee-eater usually lays a clutch of four to eight eggs between March and June, although some will lay as late as August (2).

The eggs are laid in an egg chamber that lies at the end of a tunnel (9). The nesting tunnel, which is excavated by both the male and female (2) (9), can measure up to two metres long (9) and is dug into flat, bare ground or into a gently sloping bank (3). Little green bee-eater nest holes are typically arranged in loose colonies of 10 to 30 pairs (3).  

The male and female little green bee-eaters take turns to incubate the eggs during the two week incubation period, and both adults also provide food for the young (2). In some parts of this species' range, the nesting pair will recruit the help of one or more individuals to assist in feeding the chicks and protecting the nest site. These ‘helper birds’ are more common in times of drought, when food is scarce and the chance that helpers can successfully raise a brood themselves are slim (10) (11). The young birds typically fledge between 26 and 28 days after hatching (9).

The little green bee-eater forages either alone or in small parties of 15 to 20 individuals (7). From a perch on a fence, low bush, or sometimes even on cattle, the little green bee-eater takes rapid flight after an insect, seizing its prey and returning to the perch, where it strikes the insect to kill it before devouring it. As its name suggests, the little green bee-eater prefers to prey upon bees, but will also take other insects such as fruit flies and grasshoppers (12).

The little green bee-eater is a fairly gregarious bird, with up to 30 birds roosting closely together on a branch, and up to 20 congregating to dust bathe together (3). Dust bathing is believed to help the bird dislodge harmful parasites and remove excess oil from its feathers (13).

The little green bee-eater exhibits a particular predator-avoidance behaviour that distinguishes it from many other species. If a potential predator is looking at the little green bee-eater’s nest, it will not enter until the predator has looked away. This remarkable behaviour demonstrates that the little green bee-eater aware of where the predator is looking, but also suggests it is aware of the predator’s mental state. This awareness, known as ‘theory of mind’, is typically only exhibited by humans and a few other primate species (14) (15).

The little green bee-eater is locally common throughout its range and is not currently known to be at risk from any major threats (8). However, numbers of its principal food source, bees, are declining (16), which could pose a problem in the future. The little green bee-eater is also considered to be a pest by bee keepers in parts of its range, and this could become of increasing significance to this species (17).

There are no known conservation measures in place for the little green bee-eater.

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  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2010)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2001) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 6: Mousebirds to Hornbills. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Fry, C.H., Keith, S. and Urban, E.K. (1988) Birds of Africa: Volume 3. Academic Press, London.
  4. Baker, S. (1928) The Fauna of British India. Taylor & Francis, London.
  5. Redman, N., Stevenson, T. and Fanshawe, J. (2009) Birds of the Horn of Africa. Christopher Helm, London.
  6. Fry, C.H., Fry, K. and Harris, A. (1992) King-fishers, Bee-eaters and Rollers. Christopher Helm, London.
  7. Ali, S. and Ripley, S.D. (1983) Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  8. BirdLife International (November, 2010)
  9. Asokan, S., Ali, A.M.S. and Manikannan, R. (2010) Breeding biology of the small bee-eater Merops orientalis (Latham, 1801) in Nagapattinam District, Tamil Nadu, India. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 2(4): 797-804.
  10. Burt, D.B. (2002) Social and breeding biology of bee-eaters in Thailand. Wilson Bulletin, 114(2): 275-279.
  11. Sridhar, S. and Karanth, K.P. (1993) Helpers in cooperatively breeding small green bee-eaters (Merops orientalis). Current Science, 65(6): 489-490.
  12. Asokan, S., Ali, A.M.S. and Manikannan, R. (2009) Diet of three insectivorousbirds in Nagapattinam District, Tamil Nadu, India – a preliminary study. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 1(6): 327-330.
  13. Loon, R. and Loon, H. (2005) Birds: the Inside Story. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  14. Smitha, B., Thakar, J. and Watve, M. (1999) Do bee-eaters have theory of mind? Current Science, 76(4): 574-577.
  15. Watve, M., Thakar, J., Kale, A., Puntambekar, S., Shaikh, I., Vaze, K., Jog, M. and Paranjape, S. (2002) Bee-eaters (Merops orientalis) respond to what a predator can see. Animal Cognition, 5(4): 253-259.
  16. Goulson, D., Lye, G.C. and Darvill, B. (2008) Decline and conservation of bumble bees. Annual Review of Entomology, 53: 191-208.
  17. Esmaili, M. (1974) Bee-eaters a problem for beekeepers in Iran. American Bee Journal, 114(4): 136-137.